COMBATING CORRUPTION IN LIBERIA: Talking The Talk But Not Walking The Walk

By: Tito M. Johnson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 30, 2009


You may recall the bold and gallant statement by the then newly elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, during her inaugural address to the Liberian nation and world: “we declare corruption public-enemy number one”. She went on to disclose actions the incoming administration intended to take to stem corruption out of the system, including the introduction of other reform measures such as transparency and accountability. And shortly following the commencement of work by the administration, we witnessed the streamlining of civil-servants roster across government functions, supposedly to create a lean but efficient workforce [a so-called downsizing/rightsizing].

But as we await the silver bullet [so to speak] to execute the fight on corruption, there seems to be louder and more ferocious outcries and outrages about continuing corruption in government; an indication that the fight has yet to begin, or if it has begun, is yet to start making an impact.

Howbeit three years into the administration we’re still singing the same old song: that corruption is the greatest challenge to good governance, and the primary impediment to our progress as a people. Are we being honest to ourselves? Paying lip service to combating corruption is hurting Liberia; and will only continue to do so until we decide enough is enough, and seek to confront this malaise head-on.

How unfortunate! That’s because time is not on our side, as the continuing rib-off of our country will only sink us further deeper into the abyss. When will we realize doing nothing will only exacerbate our problem? And, as this debate is heating-up, only to hear the President attempting to justify the payment of astronomical salaries to a select group of officials, as intended to dissuade them from engaging in corruption. Is this her secret weapon—the silver bullet—she’d been planning to deplore in the fight on corruption? Meanwhile, lower levels government employees are being asked to make sacrifices, and accept mere pittance for salary.

It is laughable indeed; yet, an important reminder that the same old way of doing business, that significantly contributed to economic and social inequality in the pass is rearing its ugly head again. How come what is good for Zaza is not also good for Yarkpawolo? How about equal sacrifice; or better still, equal/proportional treatment?

In Liberia, widespread corruption in government is common knowledge. Because we’ve been down this road many times over, one can argue, was part of the reasons for the election of candidate Sirleaf to the presidency of Liberia; because the electorates believed she was the most sincere, honest and capable candidate to provide Liberians a more competent government devoid of corruption or more generally, the old ways of doing business.

Corruption is the root-cause of our decadent socio-economic disparities as well as our calamitous/destructive social, ethnic and political problems; our antiquated and stale politics, our over-all under-development compared to other African countries, even though we’re the oldest independent country on the continent; our breath-taking disregard for rule of law, our catastrophic lack of necessary infrastructures, which is stalling economic growth; our political cronyism and patronage system of governance, which ignores meritocracy; the unbalanced distribution of educational and health-care opportunities around the country or the lack thereof, and the list is but endless. Simply stated, corruption is indeed the root of all evils in Liberia. But what is baffling about Liberians’ attitude regarding corruption is, the lackluster/sloppy manner if well intentioned, in which this ugly phenomenon is combated. ‘Deeds not words’, I’m told. But sadly, in Liberia, it’s all talk, then back to business-as-usual; and that’s simply the way it is with Liberians, when it comes to combating corruption.

Corruption, we’ve learned, will hurt us as a collective if allowed to percolate; just ask ordinary Liberians, and you’ll get an emphatic: “absolutely!” And mind you, what hurts you may very well destroy you; therefore, corruption must be seen as the existential threat that it has become over the years; and ‘must’ be treated as a real and present danger that should be fought with every fiber of our being.

Do we even need anybody to tell us how-much hurt it is causing us? That’s because our long experience with corruption has practically rendered us experts in judging the unfortunate effects of this insidious and pervasive/systemic malaise in society. The ubiquitous negative impact of corruption in Liberia is strangulating every aspect of life as we know it, even if Liberians have learned to cope—just for survival.

Meanwhile, the nation and its people continue to be victimized, while its soul-less miscreants (perpetrators of corruption), lacking any iota of conscience, and criminally unpatriotic, callously carry-on—flaunting their ill-gotten and sudden wealth in our sad and dejected faces—indulging as though the world is coming to an end.

How about raising public corruption to the level of ‘High-Crime’ against the state? Maybe, just maybe, this will serve as deterrence to would-be perpetrators, or serve notice to people with access to public assets, to have second thoughts and hopefully cause them to pause, before contemplating any monkey business.

Recently, president Sirleaf sent a memo to officials of her government, urging them to act swiftly against acts of corruption under their authority, as she intends to act on those allegations implicating officials of the administration. For the life of me, I couldn’t believe that at this late stage in the game, she even needed to be directing officials to take drastic action to combat corruption. If you’ll recall from her inaugural address, the war on corruption is supposed to be a policy of the administration.

What ever happened to weeding out ineffective officials; the ones who should have already known the government’s policy on corruption and presumably, should have been implementing that policy in the first place. Remember: when you lie down with dogs, don’t be surprised you wake-up with fleas. So it goes with the Ellen government: if you tango with tainted politicians, don’t be surprised they’d taint you or your administration. So much the better for president Sirleaf’s much-cherished reputation and credibility, carefully built over the years and jealously guarded for obvious reasons.

I cannot stress this enough: Corruption is a real threat to Liberia’s progress. It is a virtual plague that has crippled the country, and still is hampering the renewal and rebuilding efforts of the government.

A recent UN-Report on Liberia pointed out the lack of political will on the part of the government or more specifically president Sirleaf, to fight corruption. This statement in the report shows one real way corruption is hurting Liberia: it was a sweeping indictment of the administration. As is often said, ‘image is everything’. Even president Sirleaf alluded to this fact in her much-discussed internal memo: that she values her image very dearly; as she’d worked very hard over the years, to foster a squeaky-clean image, through which she’d built her credibility: the basis for the tremendous respect and high-regard she enjoys nationally and internationally. Sadly, the metaphorical dog-flea had been allowed unbridle free-reign; and because of the proximity of its carriers, has spread to unexpected places; and is now beginning to take a real toll. President Sirleaf realizes this, which is why I believe, she felt compelled to write U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to defend her administration, stating: “… the challenge Liberia faces in combating corruption is real, but there’s no lack of political will to address this long standing systemic malaise”. This statement by the president, though an apparent, if not so obvious, attempt to defend her government; also, is an unintended confession of weakness.

Well, as she jealously guards her personal image and vigorously defends her government, unfortunately, Liberia’s image is being muddied at the expense of its ordinary citizens.

Even though president Sirleaf acknowledges corruption as the cancer that is destroying Liberia, there’s some sense in some quarters that she may be in denial of its magnitude. A case in point: president Sirleaf in her now famous memo, remarked about the many out-cries about corruption in her government by referring to those concerns using the following phrase: “whether real or contrived”; as though people are just making up allegations to undermine her government. If at this mid-stream stage of her administration, she hasn’t keenly gauged the extend of corruption in government or the impact of the damage it is causing, then put this author on record as accusing her of being asleep at the control-switch. Considering the numerous audit reports, the Knuckles-gate II scandal and other talks of corruption, The Ministry of Finance cheque scandal, The Central Bank of Liberia endorsement of a one million dollar check for encashment, purportedly ordered by the president, though now proved to be the doing of a criminal syndicate at both MOF and CBL, including other seemingly minor allegations supposedly right under her nose; one would think the president has her plate full, to the point where it’d cause alarm; and yet she still thinks of the seemingly endless public out-cry as contrived, then something is very wrong: either she’s in denial or she chooses to look the other way, for reasons that ironically, have the potential to ignite more speculations and suspicions.

No prudent and transparent government wants to encourage the second-guessing of its true intentions. If ‘image’ is so important, and negative perception can doom one’s effort(s) then, why the cat and mouse game—the lip service—with the war on corruption? Go figure!

So much the better for personal image, while the country's image is ignored. What good is it, to care about personal image while that of your government suffers? As head of that government, it’ll come back to bite you. Simply put, one cannot maintain a squeaky-clean image if the government you head is being dragged through the mud. Be as it may, you’re duty-bound to do the right thing, if you must stay true to yourself or your principles.

A hint to the wise is quite sufficient!

In the meantime, I would like to call on all well-meaning Liberians to keep up the pressure on the government, to raise the temperature in the fight on corruption. If we relent, we stand to lose qualifying for certain international development funds that are conditioned on meeting certain standards of governance. For example, the Millennium Development Goals of the UN, U.S. governments’ Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), as well as its Millennium Challenge Corporation qualification requirements, the European Union Development Assistance to poor countries, The World Bank’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) requirement for debt cancellation, etc. The country qualification requirements for most of these programs have, combating corruption as one of its principal condition among many others.

Liberia needs these monies for its development agenda and the alleviation of poverty in society; and this cannot be stressed loudly enough!

Liberia, as it is today, exists in the last century. This shameful fact notwithstanding, the people remain hopeful; we can still catch up, only if we muster the will to set our house in order. We must weed out the few bad fruits—the dog-fleas carriers—that are staining the rest of us by tarnishing our country’s image, as we strive to reform our government, befitting a decent people who deserve better. Indeed, we must summer up the political will, and do the right thing by putting Liberia first.

The author, Tito M. Johnson is a concerned Liberian and a free-lance writer. He can be reached at:

© 2009 by The Perspective

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